A lot of trainers hate the elliptical, giving reasons such as “it’s not functional,” or “it doesn’t give you any benefit,” or “my underwear bunches when I use it.” Personally, I don’t like using the elliptical, because in the past I have had to use it three times due to no other modality being available, and my feet fell asleep because they were so bored. Does that mean the elliptical is a bad piece of machinery? Of course not, just that it isn’t best for me. Is it functional? Of course not, but neither is a bike, or a perfectly level treadmill (most streets are tilted for drainage, so a flat surface is never functional), unless you spend your time sculling in eighth for Princeton a row machine is nowhere near functional, and neither is using a barbell with a perfectly round bar that has precisely marked out grip areas. Talk to any construction worker or grunt laborer about how ergonomically designed the objects they lit on a daily basis are, and they will probably spit in your face.
The elliptical has a lot of benefits. From a movement perspective, it gives a bigger range of motion of the hips, knees, ankles and torso than the treadmill, while still providing less impact than a treadmill (Chien & Chen, Joint loading in the lower extremities during elliptical exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2007), it gives the same heart rate response for the same exertion level as a treadmill (Green et al, Heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion during treadmill and elliptical exercise. Percept Mot Skills, 2004), and it requires more use of oxygen use at a given heart rate, while also producing a higher sustainable heart rate for longer duration exercise and respiratory exchange ratio (ie. burns more calories) than the treadmill (Brown et al. Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity. J. Strength Cond Research, 2010). It is also 732% less likely to look like a dork while falling off of one, except if your name is Bill Murray.
Does this mean the elliptical is better overall than the treadmill? No. The treadmill has it’s benefits, primarily being to increase bone strength through impact, while also working on balance, cardio fitness, etc. The bike is better for developing lower body muscular endurance, while the row would be better for upper body endurance. From there, they all kind of blend together to produce similar benefits, with only slight deviations from normal. The most “functional” form of training would be to use them all, as well as going outside once in a while. The elliptical was developed with the baby boomers in mind who took up jogging in the 1970’s and needed something that would be less impact on their joints, but that would give them a good workout like running. The best thing about the elliptical is people with knee and hip problems can use it easily without impact or big ranges of motion (bike) that would hurt their knees, while still giving them a great workout). A lot of people have been able to lose a lot of weight while using the elliptical, so to completely disparage it is missing the point. The goal is weight loss and increasing activity, why does it matter what type of activity causes this?
Any piece of equipment that you can use to get fitter, stronger, faster, and more awesome-er is simply a tool in the tool box of exercises. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver as a chisel, although it could be used with less than optimal results. The best equipment is the equipment that produces the best results for the individual, and the individual that enjoys their workout without excessive pain or discomfort is more likely to continue doing that workout, regardless of whether it is the most scientifically advanced or the most crazy basic kind of workout. With so many similar choices in equipment with similar benefits available, the option of choice becomes the best option available.